Eric Hobsbawm
Nations and Nationalism since 1780


NOTE: Eric Hobsbawm is one of the best known historians of the Twentieth Century. In addition to many books on a variety of topics, Hobsbawm has written two important texts dealing with the subject of nationalism. These include: Nations and Nationalism Since 1780 and The Invention of Tradition. The excerpt included here is drawn from Nations and Nationalism since 1780.


Neither objective nor subjective definitions are thus satisfactory, and both are misleading. In any case, agnosticism is the best initial posture of a student in this field, and so this book assumes no a priori definition of what constitutes a nation. As an initial working assumption any sufficiently large body of people whose members regard themselves as members of a 'nation', will be treated as such. However, whether such a body of people does so regard itself cannot be established simply by consulting writers or political spokesmen of organizations claiming the status of 'nation' for it. The appearance of a group of spokesmen for some 'national idea' is not insignificant, but the word 'nation' is today used so widely and imprecisely that the use of the vocabulary of nationalism today may mean very little indeed.

Nevertheless, in approaching 'the national question' 'it is more profitable to begin with the concept of "the nation" (i.e. with "nationalism") than with the reality it represents'. For 'The ‘nation’ as conceived by nationalism, can be recognized prospectively; the real "nation" can only be recognized a posteriori.'

This is the approach of the present book. It pays particular attention to the changes and transformations of the concept, particularly towards the end of the nineteenth century. Concepts, of course, are not part of free-floating philosophical discourse, but socially, historically and locally rooted, and must be explained in terms of these realities.

For the rest, the position of the writer may be summarized as follows.

  1. I use the term 'nationalism' in the sense defined by Gellner, namely to mean 'primarily a principle which holds that the political and national unit should be congruent.' I would add that this principle also implies that the political duty of Ruritanians to the polity which encompasses and represents the Ruritanian nation, overrides all other public obligations, and in extreme cases (such as wars) all other obligations of whatever kind. This implication distinguishes modern nationalism from other and less demanding forms of national or group identification which we shall also encounter.

  2. Like most serious students, I do not regard the 'nation' as a primary nor as an unchanging social entity. It belongs exclusively to a particular, and historically recent, period. It is a social entity only insofar as it relates to a certain kind of modern territorial state, the 'nation-state', and it is pointless to discuss nation and nationality except insofar as both relate to it. Moreover, with Gellner I would stress the element of artifact, invention and social engineering which enters into the making of nations. 'Nations as a natural, God-given way of classifying men, as an inherent ... political destiny, are a myth; nationalism, which sometimes takes preexisting cultures and turns them into nations, sometimes invents them, and often obliterates preexisting cultures: that is a reality.' In short, for the purposes of analysis nationalism comes before nations. Nations do not make states and nationalisms but the other way round.

  3. The 'national question', as the old Marxists called it, is situated at the point of intersection of politics, technology and social transformation. Nations exist not only as functions of a particular kind of territorial state or the aspiration to establish one - broadly speaking, the citizen state of the French Revolution - but also in the context of a particular stage of technological and economic development. Most students today will agree that standard national languages, spoken or written, cannot emerge as such before printing, mass literacy and hence, mass schooling. It has even been argued that popular spoken Italian as an idiom capable of expressing the full range of what a twentieth-century language needs outside the domestic and face-to-face sphere of communication, is only being constructed today as a function of the needs of national television programming. Nations and their associated phenomena must therefore be analyzed in terms of political, technical, administrative, economic and other conditions and requirements.

  4. For this reason they are, in my view, dual phenomena, constructed essentially from above, but which cannot be understood unless also analyzed from below, that is in terms of the assumptions, hopes, needs, longings and interests of ordinary people, which are not necessarily national and still less nationalist. If I have a major criticism of Gellner's work it is that his preferred perspective of modernization from above, makes it difficult to pay adequate attention to the view from below.

    That view from below, i.e. the nation as seen not by governments and the spokesmen and activists of nationalist (or non-nationalist) movements, but by the ordinary persons who are the objects of their action and propaganda, is exceedingly difficult to discover. Fortunately social historians have learned how to investigate the history of ideas, opinions and feelings at the sub-literary level, so that we are today less likely to confuse, as historians once habitually did, editorials in select newspapers with public opinion. We do not know much for certain. However, three things are clear.

    First, official ideologies of states and movements are not guides to what it is in the minds of even the most loyal citizens or supporters. Second, and more specifically, we cannot assume that for most people national identification - when it exists - excludes or is always or ever superior to, the remainder of the set of identifications which constitute the social being. In fact, it is always combined with identifications of another kind, even when it is felt to be superior to them. Thirdly, national identification and what it is believed to imply, can change and shift in time, even in the course of quite short periods. In my judgment this is the area of national studies in which, thinking and research are most urgently needed today.

  5. The development of nations and nationalism within old-established states such as Britain and France, has not been studied very intensively, though it is now attracting attention. The existence of this gap is illustrated by the neglect, in Britain, of any problems connected with English nationalism - a term which in itself sounds odd to many ears - compared to the attention paid to Scots, Welsh, not to mention Irish nationalism. On the other hand there have in recent years been major advances in the study of national movements aspiring to be states, mainly following Hroch's pathbreaking comparative studies of small European national movements. Two points in this excellent writer's analysis are embodied in my own. First, 'national consciousness' develops unevenly among the social groupings and regions of a country; this regional diversity and its reasons have in the past been notably neglected. Most students would, incidentally, agree that, whatever the nature of the social groups first captured by 'national consciousness', the popular masses - workers, servants, peasants - are the last to be affected by it. Second, and in consequence, I follow his useful division of the history of national movements into three phases. In nineteenth-century Europe, for which it was developed, phase A was purely cultural, literary and folkloric, and had no particular political or even national implications, any more than the researches (by non-Romanies) of the Gypsy Lore Society have for the subjects of these enquiries. In phase B we find a body of pioneers and militants of 'the national idea' and the beginnings of political campaigning for this idea. The bulk of Hroch's work is concerned with this phase and the analysis of the origins, composition and distribution of this minorité agissante. My own concern in this book is more with phase C when - and not before - nationalist programmes acquire mass support, or at least some of the mass support that nationalists always claim they represent. The transition from phase B to phase C is evidently a crucial moment in the chronology of national movements. Sometimes, as in Ireland, it occurs before the creation of a national state; probably very much more often it occurs afterwards, as a consequence of that creation. Sometimes, as in the so- called Third World, it does not happen even then.

Finally, I cannot but add that no serious historian of nations and nationalism can be a committed political nationalist, except in the sense in which believers in the literal truth of the Scriptures, while unable to make contributions to evolutionary theory, are not precluded from making contributions to archaeology and Semitic philology. Nationalism requires too much belief in what is patently not so. As Renan said: 'Getting its history wrong is part of being a nation.' Historians are professionally obliged not to get it wrong, or at least to make an effort not to. To be Irish and proudly attached to Ireland - even to be proudly Catholic-Irish or Ulster Protestant Irish - is not in itself incompatible with the serious study of Irish history. To be a Fenian or an Orangeman, I would judge, is not so compatible, any more than being a Zionist is compatible with writing a genuinely serious history of the Jews; unless the historian leaves his or her convictions behind when entering the library or the study. Some nationalist historians have been unable to do so. Fortunately, in setting out to write the present book I have not needed to leave my non-historical convictions behind.

Hobsbawm, Eric J. Nations and Nationalism Since 1780. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990.